How The Scots Invented the Modern World

The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It

by Arthur Herman

Confession: I'm still not finished with this book.

It's dense, and you can only absorb just so much at one sitting.

Second confession: No, of course the Scots didn't invent the world and everything in it - that's a process and process builds one block upon another. But having said that, the author makes a good case that the world, as we know it, owes much (for better and worse) to a wee nation of granite and heather up at the northern corner of a small island nation called Great Britain.

Most accurately, the book tells the story of the Scottish Enlightenment, and how this awakening of spirit, spiritual fervor, and fierce independence spread to a New World and the ideas that carried the settlers created the United States, which then went on to influence much of the modern world.

It all began - more or less - with the Scottish Reformation. John Knox, father of the Calvinist Presbyterian movement in Scotland, taught that God gave to men - to individuals - the power to administer and enforce His laws - not a monarchy.

To administer the laws, one had to know and understand these laws.

To know and understand them required that one be able to read scripture.

And to read, one had to learn to read.

That all added up to the first "public" schools - really, parish schools. Once each parish had a school, literacy grew at a startling rate, as did the demand for books, and with the demand for books, the need for writers.

Herman writes that it was, oddly enough, the defeat of the Scots and the absorption of them into the British Empire that was, at least in part, the reason they could become so influential on thought and ideas: after 1707, and more profoundly, after "The '45," (Scotland's final rebellion in which they, particularly the Highlanders, were defeated on the moors of Culloden), Scotland had many of the benefits of a strong, rich empire, and few of the problems. Scotland wasn't interesting enough to The Crown to be paid much attention to. So Scotland could trade throughout the British empire, paid relatively little in the way of taxes, and its people had the freedom to become thinkers, scholars, writers, inventors,designers.

Having once been fully absorbed into Great Britain, Herman calls the next phase of the Scottish story "The Diaspora." That is, Scots traveled to all corners of the British empire, in particular, the American Colonies. While many Scots were on "the wrong side" of the Revolutionary War (they sided with the "bloody Brits"), those who did side with the Colonists had out-sized influence on the Declaration of Independence and eventually, on The Constitution.

Though I don't yet know whether Herman also goes into some of the Scots' contributions to our modern way of life (among its many famous names who profoundly influenced modern life are Fleming, Graham Bell, MacIntosh, Roebuck, ; among its many inventions are the decimal point, penicillin, macadam roads, the telephone, radar and Whiskey). I'm still reading. And, as noted, it's dense material and much detail.

But, winter is coming.

And the Scots also gave us Auld Lang Syne.


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